Tweets and Publicity

Yesterday, frustrated by yet another spambot, I took my Twitter account out of the “public timeline,” which is to say I’ve limited my tweets now to only my followers. Maybe I’ll change it back, but I needed a break, some time to think about where Twitter is right now in terms of publicity.

I’m using the word “publicity” here not in the usual sense, in terms of PR and attention-seeking, but as public-ness; that is, the “quality of being public” (m-w).

It might be quaint, or even foolish, to think of Twitter as anything less than fully public, for it has always existed within what danah boyd calls “networked publics,” these virtual spaces that enable “invisible audiences” and redefine our prior notions of what’s private and what’s out in the open.

But, for a long time (a long time in Internet years, of course…), Twitter was something less than fully public. It was, foremost, new, and that limited the number of people who used the service. Even today, it’s hasn’t reached a critical mass (many people I know have never heard of it, but everyone has heard of Facebook…). Current, although speculative, stats place the number of users at about 1 million, with 200,000 active users per week — compared to, say, Daily Kos, with its 1 million average users per day, these numbers aren’t all that large.

But Twitter is growing quickly, and along the way is becoming much less like an intimate social space (a feeling made all the more apparent because of the ability to “tune” the list of people you’re following), and increasingly part of the larger, media landscape. Perhaps most significantly, Twitter is now part of our politics, as journalists, politicians, and citizens have all begun using Twitter during the current election, including gathering around this virtual water cooler on every primary night of this long campaign season.

Twitter has also made its way into the business world. Many companies have tuned into these conversations that take place in 140-character tweets, to track what people are saying about them. This is something fairly new, made possible by a growing crop of services, such as Summize and Tweetscan, that use Twitter’s APIs to interrogate and index the site’s database. Using these new web sites, anyone can create a twitter search and corresponding RSS feed, and monitor anytime anyone on Twitter mentions the search term.

For businesses, this means real-time “brand management.”

Before sites like Tweetscan came along, digging into Twitter’s database was terribly difficult. Twitter had a significant orality to it, as the lack of an interface for its archives made conversations incredibly ephemeral, much like the spoken word. Now, recalling conversations from the database is easy and instantaneous.

So, for example, a few weeks ago I mentioned (ok, complained about…) NPR’s new talk show, The Takeaway. Soon after, someone affiliated with the show popped up, asking me what was it about the program I didn’t like. Another example is the spambot from yesterday — I mentioned “peak oil” in a conversation, and a few hours later was “followed” by a service that tracks oil prices.

Summize, in fact, has taken the business proposition of monitoring tweets one step further. With a recent deal with Huffington Post, Summize is now used to display real-time tweets for every tag on the HuffPost web site. So, if you tag-search for “Obama,” you’ll get a list of the most recent conversations mentioning the candidate. While it sounds innocent enough, and maybe even useful, what is also happening is conversations taking place on Twitter are being commodified, making the Huffington Post a more valuable web site, without anyone on Twitter necessarily knowing or agreeing to this.

But what happens on Twitter is “public,” isn’t it?

Of course, Facebook at one point took its public information and, with the introduction of the news feed, began using it in ways that hardly met the expectations of its users — a privacy “trainwreck” was the result.

I had a discussion about this, with Dave Parry (aka @academicdave) yesterday. And he made a great point. To paraphrase, while no one likes turning their thoughts into a commodity, we do “get something” out of the deal — we get listeners, we build community, we develop and enhance our reputation as individuals. These things, Dave argued, are more important than money.

To an extent, I agree. But that premise also has to be questioned, because in a neoliberal capitalist world (a world which includes the Web 2.0 ideology and business model), isn’t money, well, everything?

In a critical examination of Web 2.0, Petersen uses the term “loser generated content” to describe this political economy at work. In his essay, he describes the way social networking sites create strong ties for their users:

The demography of the people I interviewed places them on the left side of the political spectrum; they are at times directly anti–corporate/capitalist in the pictures they upload and their comments. Nonetheless, most of them do not see a problem in having such close ties with a particular company. This can only be explained with reference to the immense joy and pleasure they get out of sharing photos online. The huge amount of work that goes into each personal site is paid back in an affective currency: the joy and significance these sites bring to their users.

This “affective currency” is, in part, what Dave refers to above. But the real value proposition for Web 2.0 sites isn’t the photos we post on Flickr, or the actual words we say on Twitter. Content is no longer king — context data is:

What you buy, when acquiring a social networking site, is not content but context data produced by users and communities. In this way the architecture of participation turns into an architecture of exploitation and enclosure, transforming users into commodities that can be sold on the market.

…Relations are the key here. We need to acknowledge that relations of subjectivity, everyday life, technology, media and publics also are related to dimensions of capitalism. This relation reconfigures patterns of use into practices which caries a resemblance of work relations, transforming users into losers.

The problem isn’t really even with Twitter — it’s free right now, but it’s still someone’s idea of a business plan. Eventually, advertising will likely be added, and that’s how Twitter will make money.

The real problem is one that’s argued in Naomi Klein’s No Logo (via here):

“The astronomical growth in the wealth and cultural influence of multinational corporations over the last fifteen years can arguably be traced back to a single, seemingly innocuous idea developed by management theorists in the mid–1980’s: that successful corporations must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products… this corporate obsession with brand identity is waging a war on public and individual space: … on youthful identities, … and on possibilities of unmarketed space.”

No space. I started off this post talking about publicity. It’s a term Habermas uses in his discussion of the public sphere, and it’s directly related to the question of just how our tweets are used. I’m not so sure virtual space is endless — more and more of it is being co-opted by corporate interests. And while Huffington Post is an order of magnitude smaller than “Big Media” right now, that won’t likely last for long. (Arianna Huffington, in fact, doesn’t think of her site as a blog at all; she calls it an “Internet newspaper.”)

The point here is, we need space. We need a public sphere. We need a way to create publicity — to gain listeners, to establish and enhance our reputations — without creating wealth. Or becoming an ad for some Web 2.0 venture capitalist’s latest programmatic dream. There are pockets of this kind of publicity today — increasingly the political blogosphere is shaping our politics. Citizen journalism is on the rise. Wikipedia is a non-profit, more or less altruistic endeavor.

At the very least, we need to be cognizant of where our tweets end up.

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5 responses

  1. rlo,
    Thanks for the post, some discussions (many/most in fact) cannot adequately be handled in the space of 140 characters of twitter. For the most part I agree with what you say, although I want to add some more thoughts and trajectories here to perhaps complicate how we think about this essential question of “publicness” in the age of the networked digital spaces.

    I want to start by clarifying the issue of “affective currency” here. I think this is something people often talk about, but it is not really where I would want to stake my ground (granted in my twitter response I see how this can be taken as what I was representing) instead I want to argue for something a bit different.

    I think one of the “tricks” of capitalism (to be sure I wanted link this solely to capitalist economies, but I’ll just shortcut here) and neo-liberalism is to commodify ideas and thoughts, not just goods. So that in our economy of exchange we treat ideas as if individuals own them and as if they were individually produced, when in fact this is certainly not descriptive of this current moment of collaboration, but indeed was never the case—ideas and thoughts have always been the collective.

    This was one of the attractions of twitter, especially early on. As you point out here it was relatively small, it was easy for me to find a group of people who were sharing ideas (both mundane and thought provoking). But, as with any space (the Facebook example here is telling), the commodification and corporatization of said space grows increasingly troublesome.

    But, if we close of the publicness of twitter in response to the commodification of the space, I think on one level we retreat from the very thing that makes twitter valuable. Take for instance the public timeline. There are many times where I have checked out the timeline just to see what people are talking about, especially during large public/national/international events, or as you point out during “political” events. What makes twitter really interesting is the way it becomes the pseudo public sphere you close with. Now it is not ideal. Habermas probably wouldn’t like it very much, as the conversations are short (140 characters) and don’t really look like the Salon conversations. But I have learned a lot from the publicness of people’s tweets. Take for example lonesoph1st who I found because she was twittering during the Texas caucus (an interesting/disturbing tweet about people in her location insisting Obama was a Muslim). If her tweets had not been public, I would have never started following her. (She has enough similar interests to mine that what she says is not just “noise,” but enough difference that it expands my perspective.) I have “met” many people this way, and have come to enjoy their tweets, opening up perspectives and thoughts I would have never encountered. Going private as a response to the commodification of the space, cuts off this possibility, in effect going private decreases the value of twitter, abandoning the space. Is this the right move? Perhaps, perhaps the point is to be always ahead of the commodification, jump ship soon as the marketers and branders move in. Maybe not though . . . In this sense I think I have this unjustified utopic hope represented by Manfred Macx in Storss’s Accelerando, if we treat things as if they are not commodities they just might stop being commodities. Whereas, if we start insisting on a “privateness” and ownership of ideas we have already given over too much ground to neo-liberalism.

    Now, granted I am in a particularly privileged position, someone already pays me to think and produce, I don’t need a revenue stream from my work in the same way that an artist does. Giving away my thoughts and ideas is not going to lose me money, or really get anyone else money, but it does increase the value of the conversation.

    As an academic I am basically paid by the public (granted tuition pays most of my salary, but this would not be possible with out government tax dollars subsidizing the system) to produce and exchange ideas. I think it is important for academics to think about that production taking place beyond the classroom, and beyond the students one is faced with everyday.

    Okay this is getting to long now, especially for a comment, so I leave this for now, but to be continued . . .

  2. Great commentary Carlo. Thank you. I have been using Twitter for about 14 months now and have definitely seen it move from the “private” to “public” realm. I always question my involvement with things like @twittermethis or even following someone like @zappos because of the business end of the experience. Many of my colleagues have private Twitter and it seems to work for them.

    For the time being, I am happy to remain public and see where it takes me. Good food for thought.

  3. Carlo Scannella | Reply

    Thanks Dave and Kenley for your comments!

    Kenley, I’m following you now on Twitter…by the way…

    Dave, I’m going to think a bit more about your comments, great food for thought. I do, though, like the idea of looking for strategies and subversions around this questions of publicity and commodification. Stross’s work was already recommended to me by a fellow Twitter friend…darn thesis leaves me no time to read new stuff! One day…

    I do agree my move to private tweets was knee-jerk, and I’ve been thinking “was it the right thing to do?” since I did it.

  4. […] And will that decision completely ruin any chance of Twitter serving the public interest as a space for dialog and […]

  5. […] make a profit. But as it grows, and as the pressure to find ways to monetize increase, we will have much less space to talk, and debate, and converse, as our tweets are increasingly co-opted for corporate […]

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